After one year away, Blackheath marked their return to the third tier with a win
Last year, National League Rugby delivered an unforgettable season but Round One in 2023/24 suggests there might be a step up in drama and quality once again, encapsulated by victories for Sedgley Park, Blackheath and Leicester Lions.
A late try via flanker Simon Koroiyadi helped Leicester Lions defeat possible title challengers Sale FC 23-19 on their National One debut.
After surging to the National Two West title last year, Gareth Collins’ men couldn’t have wished for a better start to life in the third tier and they led this contest 10-5 at half-time thanks to a score from James Stubbs and five points from the boot of Dan Lewis.
Tom Brady had replied for the visitors but Sale – who agonisingly missed out on promotion last year – were reduced to 13 men when Dan Leake and Andy Hughes were sent to the bin.
Lewis nudged over two further penalties to stretch the Lions’ lead but on the hour, Sale hit back as debutant Nathan Langdon touched down.
The away side continued to ship penalties with Dan Birchall the latest Sale player to receive a yell0w-card but with four minutes remaining, Jonathan Keep’s troops looked to have snatched it when Mark Dixon darted over.
However, the Lions took advantage of the extra numbers as Koroiyadi burrowed over to clinch the opening day win.
Fellow newly promoted sides Sedgley Park and Blackheath also got off to winning starts in National One, with Warren Seals’ last-gasp penalty for Sedge sealing a 32-21 victory against recently relegated Richmond while a four-try blitz either side of half-time – including a hat-trick for scrum-half Jack Daly – helped ‘Club’ to a 36-33 triumph away at Taunton Titans.
Rams, Chinnor and Rosslyn Park were the other three sides to collect wins in Round One. Rams – who finished runners-up to Cambridge last term – roared back from 22-7 down to see off Birmingham Moseley 50-36 whilst Chinnor also came from behind to secure a bonus-point 22-10 victory over Darlington Mowden Park. As for Rosslyn Park, a hat-trick from winger Josh Adami helped Kieran Power’s troops to a 39-36 win against Plymouth Albion.
Elsewhere, Nathan Taylor’s late try was enough for Cinderford to steal a 30-28 win against Bishop’s Stortford at Silver Leys.
National Two North
Rotherham Titans claimed an impressive 52-24 opening day victory against newly promoted Billingham as the Yorkshire outfit hit the ground running.
Last season’s leading points scorer in National Two North, Lloyd Hayes, was at it again at Clifton Lane as his 22 points in a superb display helped the Titans begin with a win.
But it wasn’t a stroll in the park for the hosts as they only held an 11-point lead at the break with Rupert Kay, Laurence Cowen, Matt Smith, Jack Bergmanas and Hayes touching down for Rotherham.
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Luke Wilson (2) and Joe Ross went over for new boys Billingham but that was as good as it got for the away side as Rotherham raced clear in the second period thanks to a double from Hayes and tries via Luke Cole and Tomasi Tanumi.
Recently relegated Leeds Tykes and Hull also began the new term with wins, but the Yorkshire duo were made to work hard for their respective successes. The Tykes overcame a spirited Sheffield 40-35 in a ding-dong battle while a late penalty try secured Hull a 32-27 win against Otley, which was their first victory in a competitive fixture since April 2022.
Last year’s silver medalists Fylde kicked off the new campaign with a 26-26 draw against Sheffield Tigers. Both sides held healthy leads during this encounter but the spoils were eventually shared as Chris Briers and Alex Loney’s men extended their unbeaten record at Woodlands to 15 matches.
Meanwhile, a late try from Kobby Opoku-Forfie helped Hull Ionians to a 39-31 triumph over a battling Huddersfield, Louis Verity’s last-gasp converted score broke the hearts of newly-promoted Lymm as Wharfedale clinched a 22-21 victory in the North-West and Preston Grasshoppers recovered from 12-0 down and then kept Tynedale at bay to record a 43-38 victory.
National Two East
Two of the early pre-season favourites met on the opening day of National Two East but it was Barnes who came from behind to edge recently relegated Esher 39-38 at Molesey Road.
The visitors – who finished second last year – were 31-17 down at the break after Esher tries from Dan Rowland (2), Pierre Thompson, James Botterill and Charlie Crawley.
But Jack Heald’s men rallied after the interval as three second-half tries proved to be enough for the visitors despite Sam Morley’s effort setting up a grandstand finish in Surrey.
Dorking and Worthing Raiders finished in the top four last season and both clubs perhaps signalled their intent for this term with eye-catching victories on the opening day.
Armand Roux’s Dorking ran in eight tries – including braces for Finn Osborne, Thomas Howe and Joel Grant – as they beat newly promoted Wimbledon 57-22 while Worthing scored seven tries in their 45-7 victory over a youthful North Walsham.
Bury St Edmunds left it late as Kodie Drury-Hawkins’ ice-cool penalty snatched a 21-20 win over Old Albanian and after Nigel Dudding stood down from his position as Director of Rugby at the end of last season, Henley Hawks began a new era with a 43-33 triumph over Guernsey Raiders.
Elsewhere, a combination of a double from Barney Stone and some heroic defending from Oli Rosillo helped Sevenoaks claim a derby day 23-22 win over Canterbury while Tonbridge Juddians defeated newcomers Westcome Park 26-20 at The Slade.
National Two West
Value for money on the opening day in National Two West might well have been at Hare Lane as Exeter University roared back to beat Chester 43-32.
With Chester entering the unknown after being moved into National Two West, the hosts managed to build a 24-15 advantage heading into the break following scores from Harrison Vare and James Hampson (2) while James Preston landed nine points from the tee.
Ed Volley and Joe Vajner had crossed for Exeter but Scott Robson’s try increased Chester’s advantage.
However, the visitors flicked the switch as a second for Volley – along with efforts from Archie Owlett, Finn Worley-Brady and Will Smears – completed an impressive turnaround for Gareth Elliott’s men.
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Last season’s runners-up Dings Crusaders overcame a tricky assignment in Round One as they defeated newly-promoted Camborne 27-17 away from home, Jacob Perry guiding them to the win. Clifton – who finished third last term – also had to fight hard to open their account on opening day as they beat Newport (Salop) 19-10 while Redruth overturned a 21-7 deficit to secure a 28-21 triumph over Old Redcliffians.
Ben Link and Dale Boywer certainly enjoyed their first outing of the season for their respective clubs as their try-scoring exploits helped Luctonians and Hinckley to victory.
Link scored a hat-trick as Luctonians saw off newly-promoted Dudley Kingswinford 31-21 on the road while Bowyer profited from a well-oiled Hinckley rolling maul as Chris Campbell’s side recorded a 45-28 success against Bournville.
Also across National Two West, Hornets collected 32 of their 46 points at The Nest last season and they kicked off this campaign with a home 43-36 win over Loughborough Students in a 12-try thriller.
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